Tom Ze with Tortoise
April 9, 2001
London, England @ Barbican Centre
FM/SBD > ??? > FLAC
An improbably lively 64-year-old Brazilian man is singing whilst holding two empty water bottles under his shirt to signify breasts. Soon, he will let one of the bottles slide into his pants and proceed to violently mime wanking with it, whilst picking his nose with his other hand, and continuing to sing beautifully.
And you thought it was just another Tortoise gig. In fact, the impeccably tasteful paragons of instrumental post-rock have recruited quite a vocalist for this last night of the Barbican's excellent Only Connect Festival. Tom Ze first came to prominence in his native Brazil in the late '60s as part of the Tropicalia movement that also included Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Mutantes. Inspired to combine psychedelia and the avant-garde with more traditional Brazilian forms, fired by an intense political and intellectual agenda, the movement made some of the most volatile and excellent records of the time before, hounded by the police, it degenerated in the early '70s.
Veloso and Gil went on to become international superstars, but Ze the collective's most extreme prankster remained far too wayward to assimilate.
Eventually, he was rediscovered by David Byrne, who signed him to his Luaka Bop label, and coupled him with Tortoise, after John McEntire remixed a Ze track. The combination is unlikely, but superb; an excellent rejoinder to those who see Tortoise as cold and humourless. That's obliterated once Ze has made them play pots of peppercorns and sesame seeds as percussion, or compelled their jazz-trained guitarist, Jeff Parker, to crank out 'Smoke On The Water'.
In fact, Tortoise's percussive momentum and the subtlety of their playing provides an ideal backdrop for Ze and his Brazilian henchmen, Sergio Caetano and Jarbas Mariz, to make mischief over. They begin gently, with the ominous 'Ma' and the beautiful, twittering 'Curiosidade'. But soon Ze is ranting in poetically fractured English about world politics, dynamite and the Nobel Peace Prize and the charms of Brigitte Bardot, or gargling in tune.
Tortoise, bleary from their All Tomorrow's Parties festival, contribute a delicate version of their own 'Speakeasy' but, as Ze leads a hesitant audience through the utterly lovely 'Augusta, Angelica e Consolacao', it's plain he's the star. After all, here's a man who, with one of his Brazilian colleagues, can don hard hats and bang out a rhythm with hammers on each other's heads. An eccentric, inspiring talent has finally got the adoring audience and the band he deserves. Worth waiting for, undoubtedly.